There is an expression, in recent Marvel superhero films, of a social anxiety about genetic science that, in part, replaces the social anxieties about nuclear weapons that can be detected in the comic books on which these films are based (Rutherford). Much of the analysis of superhero comics – and the films on which they are based – has focussed its attention on the anxieties contained within them about gender, sexuality, race, politics, and the nation. Surprisingly little direct critique is applied to the most obvious point of difference within those texts, namely the acquisition, display, and use of extra-ordinary abilities. These superhero films represent some of the ways that audiences come to understand genetics. I am interested in this essay in considering how the representation of genetic mutation, as an error in a bio-chemical code, is a key narrative device. Moreover, mutation is central to the way the films explore the social exclusion of characters who acquire super-abilities. My contention is that, in these Marvel comic films, extra-ordinary ability, and the anxieties expressed about those abilities, parallels some of the social and cultural beliefs about the disabled body. The impaired body thus becomes a larger trope for any deviation from the “normal” body and gives rise to the anxieties about deviation and deviance explored in these films. Impairment and illness have historically been represented as either a blessing or a curse – the source of revelation and discovery, or the site of ignominy. As Western culture developed, the confluence of Greek and Judeo-Christian stories about original sin and inherited punishment for parental digression resulted in the entrenchment of beliefs about bent and broken bodies as the locus of moral questions (and answers) about the abilities and use of the human body (Sontag 47).
I want to explore, firstly, in the film adaptations of the Marvel comics X-Men, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and The Hulk, the representation of changes to the body as the effect of invisible bio-chemical states and processes. It has been impossible to see DNA, whether with the human eye or with technical aid; the science of genetics is largely based on inference from other observations. In these superhero films, the graphic display of DNA and genetic restructuring is strikingly large. This overemphasis suggests both that the genetic is a key narrative impetus of the films and that there is something uncertain or disturbing about genetic science.
One such concern about genetic science is identifying the sources of oppression that might underlie the, at times understandable, desire to eliminate disease and congenital defect through changes to the genetic code or elimination of genetic error. As Adrienne Asch states, this urge to eliminate disease and impairment is problematic:
Why should it be acceptable to avoid some characteristics and not others? How can the society make lists of acceptable and unacceptable tests and still maintain that only disabling traits, and not people who live with those traits, are to be avoided? (339)
Asch’s questioning ends with the return to the moral concerns that have always circulated around the body, and in particular a body that deviates from a norm. The maxim “hate the sin, not the sinner” is replaced by “eradicate the impairment, not the impaired”: it is some kind of lack of effort or resourcefulness on the part of the impaired that is detectable in the presence of the impairment. This replacement of sin by science is yet another example of the trace of the body as the site of moral arguments. As Bryan Turner argues, categories of disease, and by association impairment, are intrinsic to the political discourse of Western societies about otherness and exclusion (Turner 216). It is not surprising then, that characters that experience physical changes caused by genetic mutation may take on for themselves the social shame that is part of the exclusion process. As genetic science has increasingly infiltrated the popular imagination and thus finds expression in cinema, so too has this concern of shame and guilt become key to the narrative tension of films that link changes in the genetic code to the acquisition of super-ability.
In the X-Men franchise, the young female character Rogue (Anna Paquin), acquires the ability to absorb another’s life force (and abilities), and she seeks to have her genetic code resequenced in order to be able to touch others, and thus by implication have a “normal” life. In X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), Rogue’s boyfriend, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who has been largely excluded from her touch, returns home with other mutants. After having hidden his mutant abilities from his family, he finally confesses to them the truth about himself. His shocked mother turns to him and asks: “Have you tried not being a mutant?” Whilst this moment has been read as an expression of anxiety about homosexuality (“Pop Culture: Out Is In”; Vary), it also marks a wider social concern about otherness, including disability, and its attendant social exclusion. Moreover, this moment reasserts the paradigm of effort that underlies anxieties about deviations from the norm: Iceman could have been normal if only he had tried harder, had a different girlfriend, remained at home, sought more knowledge, or had better counsel.
Science, and more specifically genetic science, is suggested in many of these films as the site of bad counsel. The narratives of these superhero stories, almost without exception, begin or hinge on some kind of mistake by scientists – the escaped spider, the accident in the laboratory, the experiment that gets out of control. The classic image of the mad scientist or Doctor Frankenstein type, locked away in his laboratory is reflected in the various scenes in all these films, in which the scientists are separated from wider society. In Fantastic 4 (Tim Story, 2005), the villain, Dr Von Doom (Julian McMahon), is located at the top of a large multi-story building, as too are the heroes. Their separation from the rest of society is made even more dramatic by placing the site of their exposure to cosmic radiation, the source of the genetic mutation, in a space station that is empty of anyone else except the five main characters whose bodies will be altered. In Spiderman (Sam Raimi, 2002), the villain is a scientist whose experiments are kept secret by the military, emphasising the danger inherent in his work. The mad-scientist imagery dominates the representation of Bruce Bannor’s father in Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), whose experiments have altered his genetic code, and that alteration in genetic structure has subsequently been passed onto his son.
The Fantastic 4 storyline returns several times to the link between genetic mutation and the exposure to cosmic radiation. Indeed, it is made explicit that human existence – and by implication the human body and abilities – is predicated on this cosmic radiation as the source of transformations that formed the human genetic code. The science of early biology thus posits this cosmic radiation as the source of what is “normal,” and it is this appeal to the cosmos – derived from the Greek kosmos meaning “order” – that provides, in part, the basis on which to value the current human genetic code. This link to the cosmic is also made in the opening sequence of X-Men in which the following voice-over is heard as we see a ball of light form. This light show is both a reminder of the Big Bang (the supposed beginning of the universe which unleased vast amounts of radiation) and the intertwining of chromosomes seen inside biological nuclei:
Mutation, it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single celled organism to the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia evolution leaps forward.
Whilst mutation may be key to human evolution and the basis for the dramatic narratives of these superhero films, it is also the source of social anxiety. Mutation, whilst derived from the Latin for “change,” has come to take on the connotation of an error or mistake. Richard Dawkins, in his celebrated book The Selfish Gene, compares mutation to “an error corresponding to a single misprinted letter in a book” (31). The language of science is intended to be without the moral overtones that such words as “error” and “misprint” attract. Nevertheless, in the films under consideration, the negative connotations of mutation as error or mistake, are, therefore, the source of the many narrative crises as characters seek to rid themselves of their abilities.
Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the villain of Spiderman, is spurred on by his belief that human beings have not achieved their potential, and the implication here is that the presence of physical weakness, illness, and impairment is the supporting evidence. The desire to return the bodies of these superheroes to a “normal” state is best expressed in_ Hulk_, when Banner’s father says: “So you wanna know what’s wrong with him. So you can fix him, cure him, change him.” The link between a mistake in the genetic code and the disablement of the these characters is made explicit when Banner demands from his father an explanation for his transformation into the Hulk – the genetic change is explicitly named a deformity. These films all gesture towards the key question of just what is the normal human genetic code, particularly given the way mutation, as error, is a fundamental tenet in the formation of that code. The films’ focus on extra-ordinary ability can be taken as a sign of the extent of the anxiety about what we might consider normal. Normal is represented, in part, by the supporting characters, named and unnamed, and the narrative turns towards rehabilitating the altered bodies of the main characters. The narratives of social exclusion caused by such radical deviations from the normal human body suggest the lack of a script or language for being able to talk about deviation, except in terms of disability.
In Spiderman, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is doubly excluded in the narrative. Beginning as a classic weedy, glasses-wearing, nerdy individual, unable to “get the girl,” he is exposed to numerous acts of humiliation at the commencement of the film. On being bitten by a genetically altered spider, he acquires its speed and agility, and in a moment of “revenge” he confronts one of his tormentors. His super-ability marks him as a social outcast; his tormentors mock him saying “You are a freak” – the emphasis in speech implying that Parker has never left a freakish mode. The film emphasises the physical transformation that occurs after Parker is bitten, by showing his emaciated (and ill) body then cutting to a graphic depiction of genes being spliced into Parker’s DNA. Finally revealing his newly formed, muscular body, the framing provides the visual cues as to the verbal alignment of these bodies – the extraordinary and the impaired bodies are both sources of social disablement. The extreme transformation that occurs to Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), in Fantastic 4, can be read as a disability, buying into the long history of the disabled body as freak, and is reinforced by his being named “The Thing.” Socially, facial disfigurement may be regarded as one of the most isolating impairments; for example, films such as The Man without a Face (Mel Gibson, 1993) explicitly explore this theme. As the only character with a pre-existing relationship, Grimm’s social exclusion is reinforced by the rejection of his girlfriend when she sees his face. The isolation in naming Ben Grimm as “The Thing” is also expressed in the naming of Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) alter ego “Hulk.” They are grossly enlarged bodies that are seen as grotesque mutations of the “normal” human body – not human, but “thing-like.” The theme of social exclusion is played alongside the idea that those with extra-ordinary ability are also emblematic of the evolutionary dominance of a superior species of which science is an example of human dominance.
The Human Genome Project, begun in 1990, and completed in 2003, was in many ways the culmination of a century and a half of work in biochemistry, announcing that science had now completely mapped the human genome: that is, provided the complete sequence of genes on each of the 46 chromosomes in human cells. The announcement of the completed sequencing of the human genome led to, what may be more broadly called, “genomania” in the international press (Lombardo 193). But arguably also, the continued announcements throughout the life of the Project maintained interest in, and raised significant social, legal, and ethical questions about genetics and its use and abuse. I suggest that in these superhero films, whose narratives centre on genetic mutation, that the social exclusion of the characters is based in part on fears about genetics as the source of disability. In these films deviation becomes deviance. It is not my intention to reduce the important political aims of the disability movement by equating the acquisition of super-ability and physical impairment. Rather, I suggest that in the expression of the extraordinary in terms of the genetic within the films, we can detect wider social anxieties about genetic science, particularly as the representations of that science focus the audience’s attention on mutation of the genome. An earlier film, not concerned with superheroes but with the perfectibility of the human body, might prove useful here. Gattaca (Andrew Nicol, 1997), which explores the slippery moral slope of basing the value of the human body in genetic terms (the letters of the title recall the chemicals that structure DNA, abbreviated to G, A, T, C), is a powerful tale of the social consequences of the primacy of genetic perfectibility and reflects the social and ethical issues raised by the Human Genome Project. In a coda to the film, that was not included in the theatrical release, we read:
We have now evolved to the point where we can direct our own evolution. Had we acquired this knowledge sooner, the following people may never have been born.
The screen then reveals a list of significant people who were either born with or acquired physical or psychological impairments: for example, Abraham Lincoln/Marfan Syndrome, Jackie Joyner-Kersee/Asthma, Emily Dickinson/Manic Depression. The audience is then given the stark reminder of the message of the film: “Of course the other birth that may never have taken place is your own.” The social order of Gattaca is based on “genoism” – discrimination based on one’s genetic profile – which forces characters to either alter or hide their genetic code in order to gain social and economic benefit. The film is an example of what the editors of the special issue of the Florida State University Law Journal on genetics and disability note:
how we look at genetic conditions and their relationship to health and disability, or to notions of “normalcy” and “deviance,” is not strictly or even primarily a legal matter. Instead, the issues raised in this context involve ethical considerations and require an understanding of the social contexts in which those issues appear. (Crossley and Shepherd xi)
Implicit in these commentators’ concern is the way an ideal body is assumed as the basis from which a deviation in form or ability is measured. These superhero films demonstrate that, in order to talk about super-ability as a deviation from a normal body, they rely on disability scripts as the language of deviation.
Scholars in disability studies have identified a variety of ways of talking about disability. The medical model associates impairment or illness with a medical tragedy, something that must be cured. In medical terms an error is any deviation from the norm that needs to be rectified by medical intervention. By contrast, in the social constructivist model, the source of disablement is environmental, political, cultural, or economic factors. Proponents of the social model do not regard impairment as equal to inability (Karpf 80) and argue that the discourses of disability are “inevitably informed by normative beliefs about what it is proper for people’s bodies and minds to be like” (Cumberbatch and Negrine 5). Deviations from the normal body are classification errors, mistakes in social categorisation. In these films aspects of both the medical tragedy and social construction of disability can be detected. These films come at a time when disability remains a site of social and political debate. The return to these superheroes, and their experiences of exclusion, in recent films is an indicator of social anxiety about the functionality of the human body. And as the science of genetics gains increasing public representation, the idea of ability – and disability – that is, what is regarded as “proper” for bodies and minds, is increasingly related to how we regard the genetic code.
As the twenty first century began, new insights into the genetic origins of disease and congenital impairments offered the possibility that the previous uncertainty about the provenance of these illnesses and impairments may be eliminated. But new uncertainties have arisen around the value of human bodies in terms of ability and function. This essay has explored the way representations of extra-ordinary ability, as a mutation of the genetic code, trace some of the experiences of disablement. A study of these superhero films suggests that the popular dissemination of genetics has not resulted in an understanding of ability and form as purely bio-chemical, but that thinking about the body as a bio-chemical code occurs within already present moral discourses of the body’s value.